Roger Ballen's art practice, spanning over five decades, began in the realm of documentary photography before evolving into surreal, black-and-white 'Ballenesque' psychodramas, to which he has also added painting, drawing, sculpture, theatre, and film.Read More
In the early 1990s, Ballen began to focus on the inhabitants of the poor communities he passed through in South Africa, depicting poor white communities and individuals on the fringes of society. Ballen's seminal body of work from the late 1990s and early 2000s, encapsulated by the 2001 photobook Outland, expanded upon this subject while morphing into more staged images.
In the 'Outland' series, Ballen's subjects, consisting of mostly deranged men and their domestic animals, act out scenes for the camera in a semi-fictional, deeply psychological form of portraiture. These images are presented in the square, black-and-white format that is typical of Ballen's practice.
Capturing the marginalised in unnerving psychodramas, the artist uses the surrounding squalor and psychological intensity of his subjects as metaphors for the exploration of one's own subconscious.
In later series begun in the late 2000s, the images became increasingly blurred and ambiguous in regard to location, presenting a deeply psychological space that could be real or internal. These were inspired by a fringe community of outcasts inhabiting a warehouse in Johannesburg. Among these figures are vagrants, witchdoctors, criminals, the mentally ill, and all sorts of animals.
In series like 'Boarding House' (2009) and 'Asylum of the Birds' (2014), Ballen begins to incorporate child-like drawings, graffiti, and found objects, also using sculpture and painting to construct his scenes. Animals, an unpredictable component, feature heavily, while dolls and dummy parts increasingly stand in for the human subjects. The imagery in 'Asylum of the Birds' is void of humans except for hands, feet, and mouths that eerily poke out through the walls and rags.
Since 2011, Ballen has reproduced the Ballenesque settings of his photographic works in museums and public spaces. His first was an in-situ installation at Museum Het Domein in Sittard, Netherlands, which Ballen constructed in the same way as his photographs, recreating a rundown interior complete with vandalised furniture and disturbing drawings and graffiti on the walls.
These environments have grown in scale and complexity. In 2015, Ballen worked on transforming an entire house, sourced from the forest in Mantta, Finland, and put on display in the town's Serlachius Museum. Mannequin figures stood in as inhabitants for the rundown setting. Ballen's House of the Ballenesque (2017) for Les Recontres de la Photographie, Arles, involved taking over an abandoned house the artist once visited in 2012. For the 2018 Wiesbaden Biennale, Ballen reworked an abandoned shopping centre.
Film has also played a role in Ballen's practice. Beyond the documentaries accompanying his photographic work, in 2012 Ballen collaborated with South African cult band Die Antwoord to create a music video for I Fink U Freeky, filmed in a Ballenesque setting. Ballen's Theatre of Apparitions (2016), a standalone animated film, brings to life some of the bizarre drawn figures in Ballen's works like a psychological thriller.